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Understanding Colorado Water Rights

Rocky Mountains in Colorado

Water is a valuable resource, especially in Colorado, which is a headwaters state. This means that water does not flow into state borders. As such, water is scarce and as a property owner, you should be aware of your water rights.

Water Law in Colorado is the result of over 145 years of territorial law, which originally promoted mining and agriculture, and state law, which looks to serve human and environmental needs.

Riparian Rights vs. Prior Appropriation

The US has two systems for water laws.

The first system is the Riparian Doctrine, which gives those who own land next to a body of water the rights to that water source.

However, this could not be applied in Colorado. In the landmark case, “Coffin v. Left Hand Ditch Co.” (1882), the Colorado Supreme Court explained that the riparian doctrine could work in Colorado because water was scant. Therefore, water laws must focus on distributive justice to avoid wastage and allow as many people as possible access to water sources, as opposed to the property rights based riparian laws. In 1876, Colorado became the first state to adopt the Prior Appropriation Doctrine.

Since then, Colorado has followed a set of laws that govern water and landownership. Called the Colorado Doctrine, it consists of the following:

  • All surface and groundwater in Colorado are a public resource that should benefit public agencies and private persons alike.
  • A water right is a right to use a portion of the public’s water resource.
  • Water rights owners may build facilities on the lands of others to divert, extract, or move water from a stream or aquifer to its place of use.
  • Water rights owners may use the streams and aquifers to transport and store water.

Water rights under Prior Appropriation

The Prior Appropriation Doctrine is often shortened to the adage: “first in time, first in right.” Under this doctrine, water right is a citizen’s conditional right to use a portion of state water and is acquired through appropriation.

  • Appropriation is defined as the act of diverting water for beneficial uses.
  • Beneficial use is defined as “reasonably efficient practices to put that water to use without waste” such as commercial use, domestic use, fire protection, fish and wild life control, irrigation, recreation, etc.

This means that in case of a shortage, those who appropriated a particular portion of state water at an earlier date will be given priority over those who appropriated the water much later.

Nowadays, a new user cannot just dig a ditch to divert water. Citizens can apply for a conditional water right for beneficial use. The appropriation of a water source and one’s place in the priority system is determined after applying at a regional water court.

What Colorado water rights mean for landowners

To know more about Colorado water rights, including disputes with ditch easements or how well water operates under Colorado law, refer to the document, Citizen’s Guide to Colorado Water Law.

Knowing the basics and doing a little bit more digging yourself can prepare you to ask the right questions when looking at land for sale in Northern Colorado. Consult with water engineers and lawyers before you close the deal. And make sure you hire a real estate agent who lives locally and specializes in the kind of property you’re looking for.

Looking for a Fort Collins, CO real estate agent as well as other properties in the surrounding areas, call me Claudia Hewell at 970-672-6976 or email Claudia(at)HorsePropertyDeals(dotted)com. We’ll help you buy and sell residential acreage, ranches, hobby farms, equestrian properties, homes zoned for horses or livestock, and rural properties in Northern Colorado,

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